It was February 15 2020 when Liam Squire last ran onto a pitch to play a game of professional rugby. Now, a little over a year later, the rugged loose forward has finally made a return to action – for the Super Rugby franchise he had so much success with over a four-year career.

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Squire, who will compete with the likes of Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Shannon Frizell and Kazuki Himeno for minutes this season, made his return in the 64th minute of the Highlanders’ loss to the Crusaders.

Despite having less than a quarter of a game to remind New Zealand what he can bring to the table, Squire managed 23 carry-metres off just two runs. He also put in a few solid hits, including one on former All Blacks teammate Sam Whitelock.

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Ardie Savea and Jason Holland of the Hurricanes and Leon Macdonald of the Blues speak to media after their round one match of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Unsurprisingly, Squire was left huffing and puffing after the game, given its intensity.

“The lungs definitely felt it,” Squire said following the match.

“You can do all running in the world at training but it’s that match fitness that you need. It’s a good step in the right direction for me, but obviously disappointed with the result.”

Having undergone some significant surgery last year to get his body back into tip-top shape, some small niggles hampered Squire’s pre-season. While he was fit and could have run out onto the park in the Highlanders’ warm-up matches with the Crusaders and Hurricanes, he and coach Tony Brown decided to hold off for the fixtures that count.

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“Browny has a good plan in place that we’re going to follow,” Squire said. “If I get selected next week it’ll be something like [40 minutes]. I trust in his plan.

“I didn’t get too much of a chance in pre-season [to get physical], and you don’t want to do it to your mates in training. It’s good to finally get a bit of that contact but I’ll take a few lessons out of that 20 minutes.”

Frizell will also likely be on managed minutes, given his workload with the All Blacks last year.

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Thankfully, with Mikaele-Tu’u in devastating form on Friday night and Japan international Himeno also now available for selection, Brown won’t exactly be short of options.

Teariki Ben-Nicholas, who was solid in a Highlanders’ development hit-out over the weekend, is another option at either No 6 or No 8 while James Lentjes and former Crusader Billy Harmon will fight over the openside flanker position.

Although the night didn’t end the way that Squire and his teammates had hoped for, with the Crusaders ultimately triumphing 26-13, they have an immediate opportunity to bounce back this weekend against Squire’s former team, the Chiefs.

The Chiefs had a bye in the opening round of the competition but suffered eight successive losses last year to finish bottom of the Super Rugby Aotearoa ladder.

That’s not to say they will be easy-beats, but last season’s results suggest that they won’t be as tough a challenge as the champion Crusaders.

Whether Squire gets 5 minutes, 16 minutes or a full half of rugby next Friday in Hamilton, expect the big man to put in a big shift.

The Highlanders’ game against the Chiefs – and all other matches of Super Rugby Aotearoa for 2021 – will be available live and on demand on RugbyPass for subscribers who hold a tournament pass.

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